Barnatan, Grant Park Orchestra warm up a cold, wet night

Thu Jun 20, 2019 at 11:15 am

By Hannah Edgar

Inon Barnatan performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 with the Grant Park Orchestra Wedneday night. Photo: Norman Timonera

Two weeks in, the Grant Park Music Festival still hasn’t kicked its bad weather karma. 

For Wednesday’s concert, the temperature dropped to the low 50s, a thick fog rendering the skyscraper tableau around Millennium Park invisible. The brave few who decided to tough it out for the program huddled under the Pritzker Pavilion’s stainless steel visor to dodge the intermittent drizzles.

Artistic director and principal conductor Carlos Kalmar, whose permanent post is at the Oregon Symphony, was unfazed. “It seems my wife and I brought Portland weather with us,” he quipped to the shivering concertgoers.

The audience weren’t the only chilly ones. Before the final work on the program — Ferruccio Busoni’s Symphonic Suite — about half the orchestra ducked offstage to warm up, many returning with puffy down jackets. Kalmar announced that heaters had been requested onstage.

One wonders how comfortable Inon Barnatan must have been as he played Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 — a crystalline work which, like so many of Mozart’s concertos, demands incredible clarity and control from its soloist. The Steinway was placed further upstage at a 45-degree angle, likely as much an attempt to shield the instrument from the elements as the soloist.

The al fresco challenges made Barnatan’s clear-eyed, exuberant interpretation of the late concerto all the more impressive. His performance brought out not only the interplay between hands, but also the greater dialogue between ensemble and keyboard.

To this end, Barnatan took advantage of the novel setup to turn around and frequently lock eyes with concertmaster Jeremy Black, playing with the orchestra itself rather than simply following Kalmar’s cues. The orchestra responded in kind, well-balanced and responsive to Barnatan’s phrasing. Barnatan’s affinity for the Adagio showed, luxuriating in each note and singing out the exposed solo line with an almost Chopin-esque dolefulness.

But for all Barnatan’s polish and effusive affect, as in the glittering peals he elicited from the piano in the third movement, his rendition was lacking in emotional immediacy. Even expressive moments were conveyed as though under laminate, with a distant, somewhat perfunctory quality beneath Barnatan’s technical sheen.

The familiar Mozart offering was framed by two curios: Busoni’s Symphonic Suite and Carl Maria von Weber’s overture to Preziosa. As sometimes happens with Grant Park’s offbeat selections, both were perhaps more interesting contextually than musically.

Composed in 1820 as the incidental music to a play based on Cervantes’s story La Gitanilla (“The Gypsy Girl”), the overture is mostly a fun, galloping romp. But it’s also revealing of German-speaking Europe’s attitudes towards neighboring cultures in the 19th century: Spanish dance rhythms intermingle with a section that, inexplicably, sounds like the Turkish Janissary bands frequently caricatured in Germanic music of the period. Weber is clearly trying to depict some sort of “other” in this overture, though he seems a bit confused about exactly which culture — or cultures — those are.

Kalmar and the Grant Park orchestra brought some depth to this frosting-like work, playing with dynamic integrity and sensitivity. In fact, the interpretation was downright thrilling, from the muscular ostinato in the low strings opening the piece to its propulsive, brilliant conclusion.

The Busoni occupied the space on the program usually reserved for large-scale symphonic works, which made for high hopes: The suite is an overlooked footnote in the oeuvre of an already-overlooked composer with a fascinating backstory. Despite his Italian surname, Busoni — like the rest of the composers on Wednesday’s program — was raised and educated in German-speaking Europe before bouncing around the continent, with stints in Helsinki, Bologna, and Moscow.

A prodigy among prodigies, Busoni composed the Symphonic Suite at 17, already with a whole catalog of compositions under his belt. The only problem is, it shows. 

The teen Busoni already displays a formidable grasp of orchestration and forms like fugue — especially in the fifth movement — but doesn’t quite seem to have the same knack for structure. This is a lusty piece, big on brooding and bombast but short on musical development, leaning obsessively on motives instead.

The Symphonic Suite might be most interesting in its greater context. Some sections seem to presage German modernists to come — there’s some proto-Hindemith here, or even wisps of early Schoenberg. But when it came to Wednesday’s program, no matter how compellingly the Grant Park orchestra made its case, Busoni’s suite didn’t quite deserve the real estate.

The Grant Park Music Festival continues 6:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Pritzker Pavilion. The weekend program includes Brahms’s Violin Concerto with soloist Augustin Hadelich, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1, and the world premiere of Stacy Garrop’s Shiva Dances.

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